Turkmenistan elected Serdar Berdimuhamedov as the country's third and new President on 14 March 2022. He is the son of former President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. In February 2022, in a meeting of the People's Council (Halk Maslakhaty), the upper chamber of Turkmenistan Parliament, former President Gurbanguly indicated his desire to transfer the presidency to a young leader. He said, "I support the idea that the road to public administration at a new stage in the development of our country should be given to young leaders who have been brought up in a spiritual environment and in accordance with the high requirements of our time".[i] Subsequently, through a resolution of the National Council (Milli Gengesh), a snap election was held on 12 March 2022.[ii] President Serdar Berdimuhamedow took oath on 19 March and committed that he would "strictly follow the Constitution and laws of Turkmenistan, guarantee the rights and freedoms of the citizens, faithfully fulfil the duties assigned to the President of Turkmenistan".[iii] Although this is the region's first transfer of power from father to son, shifting power to the young leader through election can become an essential step for developing the state and society and may lead to further political and economic reforms in Turkmenistan. It is expected that the new administration will focus on addressing the economic challenges faced by the country through reforms while continuing the political stance.
As per the constitution of Turkmenistan, a native-born citizen of Turkmenistan who is no younger than forty years and no older than seventy years, speaks the state language and has been permanently residing in Turkmenistan for the past fifteen years may be nominated as a candidate for the post of the President of Turkmenistan. In Turkmenistan, political parties, public associations and groups of citizens can nominate presidential candidates. The President is elected for a seven-year term. A candidate needs more than 50 percent of the votes cast to be elected as President.[iv]
Overall, nine candidates from three officially registered political parties and initiative groups of citizens contested the election. The ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan nominated Serdar Berdimuhamedov. His nearest rival, Khyrdyr Nunnayev, an independent candidate nominated by the initiative group of Ashgabat city, won 11 percent of the total vote.[v] Agajan Bekmyradow was the candidate from the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan, and Babamyrat Meredow contested from the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan. The initiative groups of citizens nominated the rest of the candidates from different regions, including Ahal, Mary, Dasoguz, Balkan and Lebap.[vi]
The Chairman of the Central Commission for Holding Elections and Referendums in Turkmenistan declared on 14 March 2022 that 97.17 percent of voters participated in the voting process. The Commission stated that the high percentage of voting also indicates the high 'civic activity of the population and its 'conscious desire to become a direct participant in the further process of democratic transformations' in Turkmenistan. Serdar Berdimuhamedov received the highest 72.97 percent of the votes in the election.[vii]
There were many international observer missions, including from the Commonwealth of the Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Organisation of Turkic States. Foreign journalists from several countries and media organisations also observed the election process.[viii]
New Administration: Continuation and Changes?
Under Turkmenistan's founding father and former President Saparmyrat Niyazov, the country pursued the policy of 'permanent neutrality.[ix] The neutrality policy helps Turkmenistan not get impacted by the region's unpredictable and changing geopolitical situations. In a noticeable change from the Niyazov era, Gurbanguly tried to position Turkmenistan as a trade hub in the region and beyond over the last few years.[x] Closer contacts with neighbouring countries, including Central Asia, helped Turkmenistan initiate and contribute to regional integration processes, including transport and energy linkages. This cooperative regional framework is likely to continue under the leadership of the new President.
Prior to becoming President, Serdar Berdimukhamedov has served in many prominent government positions, including as the country's Deputy Prime Minister.[xi] Local media regularly mentioned him as "the nation's son".[xii] While presenting his candidacy, he said, "My main goal is to continue on the glorious path of development built during 30 years of independence and successfully implement the initiatives focused on ensuring better social conditions for the people".[xiii] He stressed that the path to achieving these objectives was precisely outlined in the National Program: "Revival of a new era of a powerful state: The National Program for the Socio-Economic Development of Turkmenistan in 2022-2052", prepared at the initiative of former President Gurbanguly. He said that the country's successful development would depend on positively implementing the programme.[xiv] He has also stated that he aims to increase the standing of Turkmenistan on the global stage as one of the major players. Talking to journalists, after casting his ballot, the new President promised to continue the country's neutral foreign policy if elected.[xv]
Despite being rich in energy resources and located in a region important for regional and international trade, Turkmenistan faces economic challenges. The country has the potential to become a significant regional and global energy player with the fourth-largest natural gas reserves globally, totaling 19.5 tcm (688 trillion cubic feet). Turkmenistan shares nearly about 10 percent of the overall global supplies.[xvi] Amu Darya basin, the Murgab Basin, and the South Caspian basin are the largest fields in Turkmenistan.[xvii] Lack of required infrastructure, export limitations, and investment shortfalls have hampered the development of these ample resources. Total production in the country was only 63.2 bcm in 2019, just 1.6 percent of the global total.[xviii]
A large part of the country's GDP is from the hydrocarbons sector. Until 2010, Russia was the leading importer of gas from Turkmenistan. Subsequently, China replaced Russia. Although Russia doubled the imports of natural gas from Turkmenistan and bought about 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2021, compared to the year 2020,[xix] China remains the largest buyer of gas from Turkmenistan by a large margin. Turkmenistan exports up to 40 bcm of gas annually to China.[xx] Turkmenistan is keen to diversify its exports and wants to sell gas to India and Pakistan via Afghanistan through Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan (TAPI) project.
TAPI has been long envisaged, however, the construction has been halted for many years. Once completed, this 1,800-kilometre-long pipeline will transport nearly 33 bcm of natural gas each year from Galkynysh, the world's second-largest gas field, to the South Asia region.[xxi] The US withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan also affected the progress made on the TAPI project in recent years. TAPI is an important project for Turkmenistan to diversify its exports, and that is why Turkmenistan not only raised the TAPI issue in the first India-Central Asia summit held in January 2022 but has also initiated deliberations with the Taliban dispensation in Afghanistan.
Recently, the Foreign Ministers of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan had a meeting and agreed to push forward with various projects, including gas, electricity and transport. The Taliban have promised Turkmenistan to ensure the security and safety of TAPI through troop deployment.[xxii] Turkmenistan has opened the official channel to deal with Taliban dispensation through its representative in Afghanistan Embassy in Ashgabat.[xxiii] The way President Serdar Berdimuhamedov will deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan will determine the progress towards the implementation of various projects, including TAPI.
Connectivity is also an essential factor for landlocked Turkmenistan. The country is gradually linking itself to the world with large-scale infrastructure projects, including regional transport corridors. At the first India-Central Asia Summit, Turkmenistan also proposed to include the Turkmenbashi Port within the framework of INSTC (International North-South Transport Corridor), which seeks to link the Indian Ocean to the Caspian Sea via the Persian Gulf and onwards into Russia and northern Europe.[xxiv] The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also shows interest in including Turkmenistan in its future work on trade and transport connectivity.[xxv] Energy and its export would play a significant role in the sustainable development of Turkmenistan. However, Turkmenistan has recently shown interest in diversifying its economy and energy export routes, especially with connectivity projects.[xxvi] If the newly elected President continues with this policy, it can help the country find new markets and develop transit routes and marketplaces for transfers of hydrocarbons within the region.
There are many challenges facing the newly elected President of Turkmenistan. Lack of a skilled workforce, food shortages, development of industrial expertise, and strengthening of the education system are significant domestic challenges that the newly elected President has to deal with immediately. Turkmenistan's economy is heavily dependent on hydrocarbons exports. The global recession, lower energy prices, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing Russian-Ukraine crisis has also impacted its economy. Regional integration processes are crucial to dealing with these challenges. Due to the current geopolitical situation in the region, Turkmenistan's primary objective would be to continue the policy of 'neutrality', as stated by the newly elected President. Therefore, it will be interesting to see the approach adopted by the new President to deal with domestic and global challenges in the coming years.
*Dr. Punit Gaur is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Al Jazeera, 12 February 2022, “Turkmenistan to hold early presidential election on March 12”, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/12/turkmenistan-to-hold-early-presidential-election-on-march-12, Accessed on 15 March 2022.
[ii] ABC News, 12 February 2022, “Turkmenistan calls snap election to replace strongman leader”, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/turkmenistan-calls-snap-election-replace-strongman-leader-82844109, Accessed on 11 March 2022.
[iii] Caspian News, 22 March 2022, “Turkmenistan’s New President Takes Office After Inaugration”, https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/turkmenistans-new-president-takes-office-after-inauguration-2022-3-21-0/, Accessed on 25 March 2022.
[iv] OSCE-ODHIR Report, 8 March 2022, “Turkmenistan-Early Presidential Election”, 513565.pdf (osce.org), Accessed on 16 March 2022.
[v] AP News, 15 March 2022, “Turkmenistan leaders’ son wins presidential election”, https://apnews.com/article/central-asia-asia-turkmenistan-presidential-elections-elections-3d13e95fe055bf53525141c351708488, Accessed on 18 March 2022.
[vi] Turkmenistan Golden age, 5 March 2022, “Meetings of voters with candidates for the post of President of Turkmenistan”, https://turkmenistan.gov.tm/en/post/61354/meetings-voters-candidates-post-president-turkmenistan-6, Accessed on 15 March 2022.
[vii] Central Commission for Holding Elections and Referendums in Turkmenistan, 15 March 2022, “The results of the Presidential elections”, https://saylav.gov.tm/en/news/387, Accessed on 20 March 2022.
[viii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, 13 March 2022, “International Observers Confirmed the Legitimacy of The Elections”, https://www.mfa.gov.tm/en/news/3063, Accessed on 17 March 2022.
[ix] Annette Bohr (2016), “Turkmenistan: Power, Politics and Petro-Authoritarianism” Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2016-03-08-turkmenistan-bohr.pdf, Accessed on 21 March 2022.
[xi] Al Jazeera, 15 March 2022, “Turkmenistan leader’s son wins presidential election”, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/15/turkmenistan-leaders-son-wins-presidential-election, Accessed on 22 March 2022.
[xii] DW News, 15 March 2022, “Turkmenistan: Autocrat president's son claims landslide win”, https://www.dw.com/en/turkmenistan-autocrat-presidents-son-claims-landslide-win/a-61128199, Accessed on 24 March 2022.
[xiii] ABC News, 15 March 2022, “Turkmenistan leader’s son wins presidential election”, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/turkmenistan-leaders-son-wins-presidential-election-83450579, Accessed on 25 March 2022.
[xiv] Caspian News, 15 March 2022, “Serdar Berdimuhamedov wins Turkmenistan’s Presidential Election”, https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/serdar-berdimuhamedow-wins-turkmenistans-presidential-election-2022-3-15-55/, Accessed on 18 March 2022.
[xvi] NS Energy, 15 March 2021, “Profiling the top five countries with the biggest natural gas reserves”, https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/features/biggest-natural-gas-reserves-countries/, Accessed on 27 March 2022.
[xix] AP News, 24 December 2021, “Russia Doubled Purchases of gas from Turkmenistan in 2021”, https://apnews.com/article/business-russia-china-asia-central-asia-62986d8c29f32dd3f98f9af38775e2ac, Accessed on 10 March 2022.
[xx] AP News, 24 August 2021, “Turkmenistan strikes natural gas deal with China’s CNPC”, https://apnews.com/article/business-china-turkmenistan-e33c3dc2bcd7a16ed70b51f9ccc564df, Accessed on 11 March 2022.
[xxi] The Week, 31 October 2021, “TAPI gas pipeline project to resume in Afghanistan report”, https://www.theweek.in/wire-updates/business/2021/10/31/fgn74-afghan-tapi-project.html, Accessed on 15 March 2022.
[xxii] Pipeline Technology Journal, 17 January 2022, “Taliban Regime To Deploy 30,000 Troops To Resume Work On The TAPI Gas Pipeline Project”, https://www.pipeline-journal.net/news/taliban-regime-deploy-30000-troops-resume-work-tapi-gas-pipeline-project, Accessed on 18 March 2022.
[xxiii] The Print, 22 March 2022, “Turkmenistan becomes first Central Asian country to recognise Taliban envoy to Afghan embassy in Ashgabat”, Turkmenistan becomes first Central Asian country to recognise Taliban envoy to Afghan embassy in Ashgabat – ThePrint, Accessed on 27 March 2022.
[xxiv] Business Standard, 28 January 2022, “India, central Asian countries pitch for boosting trade, connectivity”, https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/india-central-asian-countries-pitch-for-boosting-trade-connectivity-122012701733_1.html, Accessed on 15 March 2022.
[xxv] Business Turkmenistan, 25 Farbaruary 2022, “OECD May Include Turkmenistan in Trade and Transport Connectivity Project”, OECD May Include Turkmenistan in Trade and Transport Connectivity Project | Economy (business.com.tm), Accessed on 20 March 2022.